Friday, November 6, 2009


Words stand for things. Verbal understanding is not "merely" verbal. Words are the indispensable human tools for understanding realities.
From Hirsch's The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them

I think he's spot on there, but I wish he would say more things like that. He is talking in reference to a journal entry of Emerson's which he uses as an example of the Romanticism he deplores:

"Yesterday Mr. Mann's address on Education. It was full of the modern gloomy view of our democratical institutions, and hence the inference to the importance of Schools...Education!... We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or fifteen years & come out at last with a bellyful of words & do not know a thing. We cannot use our hands or our legs or our eyes or our arms. We do not know an edible root in the woods. We cannot tell our course by the stars nor the hour of the day by the sun. It is well if we can swim & skate....Far better was the Roman rule to teach a boy nothing that he could not learn standing..."

While I share Hirsch''s distrust of this way of thinking, I think that Hirsch makes a mistake in tracing our country's educational problems back to this kind of Romanticism per se. I do think at times this Romanticism was co-opted by crass utilitarianism -- the kind of utilitarianism seen in this quote by one Charles Prosser in Hirsch's book: arithmetic is superior to plane or solid geometry; learning ways of keeping fit to the study of French; learning the technique of selecting an occupation to the study of algebra.”
On the surface they seem similar in that they both think theoretical academic knowledge is of no real avail to the person. And I tend to resist that way of thinking, as Hirsch does. However, a knowledge of real things, such as Emerson advocated, is very different in my mind from the methodological, empty, self-referential instruction that Prosser advocates. Indeed, this very utilitarianism has a sort of Enlightenment-style logic and so I'm not sure that Hirsch doesn't come close to the clutches of Charybdis in steering clear of the Scylla. If you are making your case for education based on what is most useful for people to know, you are going to find yourself more in Prosser's camp than you perhaps want to be, even with the best intentions.

For example, Hirsch's defense of algebra is that it is more useful in business than mere business math. I imagine this is true, but it doesn't seem sufficient. His words:

Today, it is no longer possible to assert that learning algebra is inferior to learning how to select an occupation. With the nature of jobs shifting every few years, it has become obvious that algebra is in fact the more practical study.
Surely, this is not just utilitariainism. Implicitly, it is an argument for a true liberal education that is suited to the person not to mere utility. But only implicitly. Cardinal Newman, acknowledging the usefulness of a proper liberal education in that it provides the habits of thought that are valuable for all trades and professions, yet is careful not to pin his case for a liberal education on these secondary benefits. Hirsch seems to be uncomfortable with making the distinction, perhaps because he is talking to an audience that thinks in practical terms. However, that leads to some puzzling moments in the book (at least to me). It sounds like he is merely proposing a higher kind of utilitarianism, based on economic, civic and moral success, as here:

Of course, Hofstadter is right that interested, as distinct from disinterested, practicality is a persistent American trait. We are fondest of knowledge that has utility for economic and moral improvement, a preference I happen to share.

This kind of thing stops me in my tracks and make me wonder exactly how intellectual pragmatism is better than anti-intellectual pragmatism (except that when you push academics, you are pushing something that is valuable and good in itself and might lead to something better than its source. That is, if you give a child an excellent intellectual formation, even if you are only thinking of "economic and moral improvement", you may run the risk of raising an alienated Romantic, but at least you've given the child the means to go higher, whereas the "business math" and "how to get a job" training does not go any higher than itself). OK, I'm reading this over again and noticing that his words are "we are fondest of knowledge that has utility...." which isn't the same thing as saying that knowledge is strictly utilitarian. So perhaps just because he doesn't hammer on knowledge as a good in itself, doesn't mean that he minimizes that goodness.

Hirsch goes on to write in defense of verbal knowledge as a way of perceiving and handling reality, and I think he is right on again here:

We don't think of a child's learning of words as "rote memorization". The remarkable learning rate of eight new words a day is far from being a merely receptive activity. As psychologists have shown, learning words requires complex trial-and-error guesses. Young children constantly try to make sense of what they hear of the basis of a bare minimum of relevant background knowledge. ...... But sometimes when a child does not know enough context, he or she cannot at that moment be an active participant in the class, no matter how resourceful the child or teacher may be.
I think this is where the "core knowledge" argument is strongest. There is no doubt that of all our human capacities, the ability to name what we know and build on that to understand and reason and depict is the most closest related to our rational nature.

Words signify reality. Perhaps students in Emerson's time DID come out with a "bellyful of words" but as Hirsch points out, this doesn't tend to be a problem of our time and place. We are often impoverished in words AND things -- having instead a surplus of visual and auditory fragments that do not cohere.

Knowledge of a word often helps you gain knowledge of a thing..... as well as vice versa. But particular knowledge of a thing does not in itself bring understanding, as Aristotle writes in the Metaphysics:

"With a view to action experience seems in no respect inferior to art, and men of experience succeed even better than those who have theory without experience. (The reason is that experience is knowledge of individuals, art of universals, and actions and productions are all concerned with the individual; for the physician does not cure man, except in an incidental way, but Callias or Socrates or some other called by some such individual name, who happens to be a man.

If, then, a man has the theory without the experience, and recognizes the universal but does not know the individual included in this, he will often fail to cure; for it is the individual that is to be cured.) But yet we think that knowledge and understanding belong to art rather than to experience, and we suppose artists to be wiser than men of experience (which implies that Wisdom depends in all cases rather on knowledge); and this because the former know the cause, but the latter do not....

"Again, we do not regard any of the senses as Wisdom; yet surely these give the most authoritative knowledge of particulars. But they do not tell us the 'why' of anything-e.g. why fire is hot; they only say that it is hot.
Surely this is the weakness in the romantic emphasis on things in preference to words, which Hirsch notes accurately in my opinion. Having themselves by educational transmission a rich heritage of words and ideas, the Romantic thinkers and poets themselves could sense and experience richly and put their perceptions into beautiful and reasonable words. Yet their very Enlightenment-style education, rich in words and style but lacking in philosophical realism, gave them a sense of alienation from the things themselves. So I have always thought that Romanticism in some form is going to follow materialist Rationalism and nihilism and/or crass pragmatism is generally going to follow both of those.

I think Hirsch is right to point out that our nation was founded in Enlightenment thinking and raised on Romanticism (and came of age with a fascination for utilitarian statistics-crunching and regimentation and standardization in education, in my opinion). However, I don't think as he seems to that the solution is to go back to our Enlightenment founding ideas and simply eschew the Romanticism. I think both were pendulum extremes. So when I feel frustrated reading this book, like it's almost but not quite reaching the truth, it's probably because of that. It's because not all of the book lives up to bits like that one at the head of this post.

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